The Ordering of the Christian Mind: Karl Barth and Theological Rationality

Written by Martin Westerholm Reviewed By Tyler Wittman

In the hundred years since he first commented on Romans, the rationality of Karl Barth’s theology and his conception thereof has prompted reactions both frolicsome and fussy. The Swiss theologian has been painted everything from a naïve fideist and anti-rationalist to a classical and even ‘critical’ realist. Martin Westerholm paints us a different picture. This meticulous, carefully argued book has two fundamental aims: the first is descriptive and seeks to provide us with a new interpretation of Barth’s account of theological reasoning, whereas the second suggests that Barth’s account provides us with a theologically and spiritually bracing construal of well-ordered Christian thought. All of this is exigent because Barth is largely responsible for theology’s preoccupation with questions of theological reason throughout the twentieth century (p. 1). Understanding what Barth has to say, however, requires some considerable ground-clearing.

Throughout the Church Dogmatics Barth deconstructs the questions he poses to his material, sometimes spending pages exorcising these questions of false starting points and intentions. This reflects his general concern to put the right things on the table and keep the wrong things off—after all, the right answers often prove useless without the right questions. Westerholm knows that if we are to understand Barth’s account of theological rationality, we must grant him the opportunity to reframe the questions of what it means to be rational and to know the truth.

Two shifts are decisive in Barth’s account of theological reasoning, each flowing out of convictions about the distinction and relation between God and creatures consequent to Barth’s reading of Paul. First, the distinction between God and creatures Barth finds operative in Paul’s letters leads him to reframe the question of truth in terms of how the truth of God may be acknowledged without reducing God to a creaturely quantity. Customarily, the question of truth is concerned with addressing how reason may establish the truth of particular claims. Barth thinks the classical approaches to this question fail to keep God distinct from creatures: where truth is something given on the plane of being or existence (‘realism’), then God becomes another fixture in the metaphysical furniture of the cosmos, and where truth is something grounded in the activities of the human knower (‘idealism’), then God’s activity becomes indistinguishable from human activity. In both scenarios, the truth of God is measured by creaturely criteria, possibilities, and motives. On Barth’s reading of 1 Corinthians, such problems lie beneath the discord Paul encounters at Corinth. The question, therefore, is how creatures may acknowledge the truth of God without becoming idolatrous – a motivation Barth discerns behind Paul’s appeal to the resurrection in the same letter. Second, God’s peculiar relation to creatures leads Barth to reframe the question of reason itself in moral terms. When God encounters us, he does so as Lord and as one who demands a response. The truth of God cannot have anything to do with ‘disinterested’ theoretical reasoning, but since it comes to us in the form of a claim and a summons, it involves the whole nexus of the human knower’s concrete self-determination in obedience to God. Westerholm explains, ‘Barth follows Kant in the first instance in separating the sphere in which knowledge of God is found from the sphere of theoretical reasoning; but he then departs from him in identifying the clue to the proper movements of reason within this sphere’ (p. 28). The question therefore becomes one of how thought is properly ordered through obedience so that it may acknowledge the truth of God. Only in obedience do the movements of reason correspond to the movement of God—the decisive analogy between God and creatures that grounds the coherence of speech is found finally not in being, but in activity. Hence, knowledge alone puffs up, and requires love to edify.

These two shifts enable Westerholm to set forth an interpretation of Barth’s account of theological reasoning in which dialectic and analogy are positively correlated rather than contrastively opposed. For Barth, reason is both dialectical and analogical because acknowledgement of the truth consists not in particular claims, but in particular, well-ordered movements that correspond to the activity of God. Barth’s description of the ordering and activities of the mind stand in a complex relation to his Neo-Protestant inheritance. Westerholm’s clear overview of the background to the question of the ordering of thought is no small achievement; he offers brief but sensitive discussions of Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Herrmann without losing his focus or his reader (pp. 43–59). Here he sets forth three concepts central to the question of well-ordered thought: the standpoint, orientation, and freedom of thought. Standpoint is a perspective established by certain principles, orientation accounts for how the movements of reason within this perspective are regulated, and freedom signals the extent to which thought either controls or is controlled by the objects it seeks to understand. While the categories come from Kant, they prove very useful in delineating Barth’s indebtedness to the nineteenth century and also his critical freedom from it, won through patient attention to Scripture.

After these introductory maneuvers, the first part of the book consists of two chapters devoted to tracing how Barth reframes the questions of reason and truth through his exegetical work on Paul’s letters throughout the 1920s and the early 1930s. Barth believes that the noetic implications of Paul’s account of faith carry consequences for the reordering of thought in accordance with faith. Part two then spends two further chapters showing how Barth’s study of Anselm is concerned with how thought is ordered in accordance with faith’s movement to understanding. If Paul provides Barth with some noetic implications of a theology of justification, then Anselm provides Barth with the corresponding noetic consequences of a theology of sanctification. Barth’s engagement with Paul and Anselm enables him to address several questions concerning the peculiarity of theological reasoning bequeathed to him by his Neo-Protestant upbringing and context. The bulk of Westerholm’s book is devoted to careful analysis of all this material, and the reader should not be misled into underestimating its importance if space constraints force me to bypass it here. For our purposes, it will suffice to describe what Westerholm argues are the main contours of Barth’s account of well-ordered thought.

To acknowledge the truth of God, the believer must occupy a standpoint in which reason may apprehend truths that depend wholly on the activity of God, similar to the justifying judgment of God known by faith alone. Faith therefore occupies the standpoint of the eschatological subject, who takes God’s knowledge of herself ‘in Christ’ as the principle of her thought so that she may see as true that which faith says is true. This standpoint is different from the self-referential standpoint of the empirical subject, who takes their own experience and activities as the criterion by which to decide upon the truth and value of any particular claim. Instead, Barth maintains that in baptism, the eschatological subject is present through the mode of promise, which ‘corresponds to a mode of givenness that may be presupposed as the basis of theological inquiry even though … the reality that is promised is not present in fulfillment’ (p. 188). Hence, ‘promise’ is offered as an alternative to the readings of Barth that find analogy, Christology, or revelation as the conceptual key to God’s presence to creatures (pp. 90–114). Granted this mode of presence, the believer may reckon with realities that are not present by way of fulfillment and which therefore surpass the phenomenal immediacy of experience.

From this standpoint promised in baptism, the orientation of thought comes from the life of Christ and from the signs that stand as witnesses to this life, such as the creed. If baptism enables the believer to reckon with realities present by way of promise and not fulfillment, then this applies to the creeds and confessions of the church into which the believer is baptized. The church’s confession is not ‘a final resting-place for theological reasoning; instead, it presents points of orientation that guide Christian thinking in its attempt to apprehend the divine reality that is the origin and end of the given’ (p. 195).

Finally, the believer’s noetic sanctification consists in their correspondence with the freedom of God’s activity, which shapes the freedom of Christian thought. The movement from faith to understanding involves above all grasping the objects of faith in light of their ‘necessity’ granted them by God’s freedom. In other words, understanding consists in grasping the objects of faith in such a way that the mind’s freedom is reshaped as it finds the thought of these objects’ non-existence inconceivable. This signals a movement away from asking about whether a particular claim is true towards asking about the range of its truth over the whole person’s being, activity, thought, and speech. Only apprehension of the genuine necessity of the object of faith frees the believer from the tyranny of imagined possibilities and worlds that treat the objects of faith as contingent and not universally binding over the whole of the creature’s existence. The freedom of thought arises as the creature forsakes the attempt to conceive of anything better than the movement of God’s freedom.

Specialists of Barth will find much in this study worth revisiting, and it should not go unnoticed (nor will it) that Westerholm challenges many of the most influential interpretations of Barth’s account of rationality. This follows from the author’s preference for reading Barth as an exegetical theologian and the consequent focus on carefully interpreting Barth’s early exegetical lectures, some of which have only been published in the past several years. The portrait of Barth that emerges is of a ‘modern’ theologian tackling perennial questions related to the proper function and ordering of reason as they are informed by his reading of the Bible. This is not to say that Westerholm provides us with, nor intends to offer, an account of Barth on rationality that is prescriptive in all respects. He neither demonizes nor divinizes his subject; he lets Barth speak. Questions inevitably remain—perhaps especially about ‘fideism’—and not everyone should find in Barth’s solutions their own. But only the hardest heart will fail to see something appreciable in Barth’s unflinching resolve to let the Bible speak to these questions. Barth stated that the voices of the church are not dead and past, but living voices that deserve to be heard to the extent that they comment on Scripture. When we hear these voices for what they have to tell us about Scripture, we will find them neither infallible nor unhelpful. We are in Westerholm’s debt for helping us to hear Barth’s voice in just this sense.

Tyler Wittman

Tyler Wittman
University of St Andrews
St Andrews, Scotland, UK

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